Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Harried Homesellers: Getting a Grip on Your Qualms

Europe is in turmoil after Britons voted to leave the European Union. The Middle East is in flames. China is in an economic slowdown. And at home, the U.S. presidential race has everyone's nerves frayed.

Yet most home sellers aren't worried about how these factors could affect the real estate market -- or their own potential for a positive outcome, says Sid Davis, a veteran real estate broker.

"Economic and political factors don't affect people's views on real estate unless the problems are in their neck of the woods," says Davis, author of "A Survival Guide to Selling a Home."

Of course, U.S. property markets were shaken in the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis that hit the country beginning in 2008. But the gradual U.S. economic recovery remains more or less on track.

In fact, there are several positives that keep current sellers smiling. One is that mortgage rates continue to hover near record lows, keeping property relatively affordable for buyers. Another is that houses are in short supply in many communities, and prices are still holding steady or rising.

Lawrence Yun, the chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, predicts that the good news should last in the months ahead. He anticipates that repeat buyers -- many of whom are trading up to larger properties -- will continue to make up the bulk of purchasers in the near future.

Kathy Zimmermann, a broker-owner with the Re/Max Realty chain, says anxiety levels are typically highest among sellers who face tight time limits because they're moving for a job transfer or because they've already committed to buying another property. In addition, those confronting divorce can become particularly frazzled if a house they expected to sell quickly sits unsold.

Anxious home sellers often lose sleep due to their worries and sometimes bother their listing agent early in the morning after a sleepless night, says Zimmermann, who's received calls and texts from worried clients as early as 5:30 a.m.

But Dorcas Helfant, a broker and former president of the National Association of Realtors, says the fault for a slow-moving house often rests not with the listing agent, but with owners who insist on an above-market price.

"Ask too much and potential buyers will be repelled by what they perceive as your greed," Helfant says.

Here are a few pointers for sellers:

-- Realize that hassling your listing agent could be counterproductive.

Zimmermann says anxious sellers can hurt themselves if they make unreasonable demands on their listing agents. For example, she tells how one of her clients emailed or called her at least two to three times per day, requesting a detailed update on everyone who'd toured his house and their reactions.

Putting a lot of pressure on an agent might seem like a helpful strategy. But it can easily backfire if the agent begins to resent your persistent inquiries, which could result in their dropping the client altogether.

-- Ponder the value of open houses to address a selling problem.

Helfant says that in most cases, public open houses provide little value to homeowners trying to hasten a sale.

She says open houses rarely attract serious, well-qualified purchasers. Many who visit open houses are neighbors or those seeking decorating ideas, while others are mere wishful thinkers who lack the means to go through with a deal.

Instead of pressing your agent to hold more open houses, Zimmermann says you could consider asking for an "office caravan" to gain pointers on making your property more salable. During such an event, many members of the sales force at the listing agent's office come over to critique the home and offer suggestions for upgrades.

For instance, the consensus of the group could be that you should repaint the sunrise yellow walls in your kitchen to a more neutral tone -- even if your agent didn't recommend that.

-- Remember that avaricious sellers often receive less than they deserve.

Accurate pricing is complicated, especially in neighborhoods where property valuations are in transition. In such areas, a study of recent sales -- what are known as "comparables" -- may not give you obvious answers on how much to ask.

Still, cautious pricing is all the more important at a time when many buyers -- including cash-short first-timers -- are still fearful they'll overpay. "Many people won't waste their time trying to negotiate with someone asking too much," Zimmermann says.

Sellers who live in an area with many very similar properties -- like a lot of townhouse communities -- should be particularly careful to avoid over-pricing. That's because buyers searching in such look-alike developments can easily spot overpriced units.

-- Channel your stress into a cleaning blitz.

Davis, who's sold property since 1984, says that in recent years he's noticed a steep decline in the cleanliness of properties shown for sale. He counsels anxious sellers to direct some of their nervous energy into a cleaning spree that covers every room in their place.

Showing a home in immaculate condition can give you a competitive edge over less-tidy people trying to sell in the same hamlet.

"If you're a slob and don't do anything about your mess before buyers start trooping through, you'll be punished," Davis says. "But if your house is well furnished and truly sparkles, you could be richly rewarded."

(To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at